Photo by Marco Vittur for FHM.
After moving to Detroit and settling in to work on Crystal Machete, Wes Borland gave himself three rules: No outside help, no human vocals, and no distorted guitars. From there, he built the solo album he’s been quoted as saying he’d never make. In the hands of a lesser musician, we may have gotten eighty minutes of free-form jazz featuring a beagle as the lead vocalist; instead, Borland turns in something sounding more like a movie soundtrack, a professionally crafted affair that eschews his hard rock roots in favor of post-rock and electronica.
Svalbard, at eleven minutes, seems to utilize all the various tools and instruments at his disposal for this project, a slow crawling foot tapper with a catchy drumline, that builds an electronica tension, relaxes, builds a little differently, relaxes a little more slowly, then eventually settles out into an eerie little spoken word piece which gets around his ‘no human vocals’ rule by, apparently, having his iMac vocalize a spoken word piece for him. Vltava, in turn, proves his faithfulness to ‘no distorted guitars’ as he opts instead to push the drum tracks through an effects gamut a la Prince, and allows a single unaltered guitar to pick its melodic way across a muddy backdrop.
There’s a flow to the album. The transitions between genres match the transitions between emotions, a story being told between the ambient tones of Main Titles and the evolving loops of noise that close out End Credits. An apparently European journey plays out, from simple beginnings in the Czech Republic (Vltava being a river that runs through Prague) to dark clubs and nighttime revelry, then continues north, the bells of Reprise and the title of Svalbard suggesting a trip to the cold outer rim of civilization in search of peace and quiet time to contemplate amongst glaciers and tiny Norwegian towns hidden in the valleys and seas of the Arctic.
Even in its tenser moments, there’s a sensation of a sort of underlying freedom that can’t be conjured or faked – it has to be legitimately felt in order to craft songs like these. Perhaps it was the experience of building his own recording studio, or maybe Wes traveled across Europe and found joy and inspiration there. Maybe it’s an allegory for his own life’s journey, from finding conquest within his own society only to look outward in search of more. Maybe all of the above. Whatever the motive, I’m glad to see a rock musician able to translate serenity and happiness into their work. All the rage and gloom and fuck you of the culture are great at moments, but sometimes I just want my music to make me smile – and it’s hard not to grin at the pounding dance floor vibes of White Stallion or the title track. There is real fun here.
I’m feeling it. Crystal Machete is a realization of what most post-rock should strive for, and that’s the ability to tell a story without words, to allow the music to draw you along a contained recognizable path from introduction to conclusion. It says what it needs to say without first beating you over the head to make sure you’re listening. It’s a polite album, which whispers of personal growth, taking you by the hand and leading you from the 4/4 of your adolescence and into the mature yet unrestrained experimentation and individuality of adulthood.
A realization of what most post-rock should strive to do: Tell a story without words, to allow the music to draw you along a contained recognizable path from introduction to conclusion.